Canadian veterans have 'significantly' higher risk of dying by suicide, study says

A new study by Veterans Affairs, DND and Statistics Canada has delivered a first-ever snapshot of suicide among former soldiers. But a veterans advocate says it is an incomplete picture because the data stops in 2012.

Young, male ex-soldiers found to be 242% more likely to take their own lives than average population

Canadian soldiers, including those from the 1st Battalion, Royal 22e Regiment, salute during a ceremony for fallen comrades at forward operating base Masum Ghar in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan. A new study says Canadian veterans "significantly" more likely to die from suicide than the average population. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

The federal government has — for the first time — taken an accurate, statistical snapshot of the level of suicide among veterans.

The benchmark analysis, released Thursday by Veterans Affairs Canada, confirms the long-held suspicion that former soldiers — both male and female — are more likely than the general population to take their own lives.

It's an incomplete portrait, according to some in the veterans community who have been pushing for this kind of research for years. Still, the numbers are stark.

Men who served in uniform have a 36 per cent higher risk of suicide than those in civilian life, according to the study which examined the records of 200,000 ex-members over a 37-year period between 1976 and 2012.

Those at the highest risk were young men under the age of 25. They were 242 per cent more likely to end their life.

For women, the data is even more alarming. They have an 81 per cent "higher risk of dying by suicide compared with the female" general population.

The figures tracking women, however, were somewhat limited by the sample size, the report said.

Interestingly, the likelihood of suicide among female veterans was higher between 1993 and 2012 than it was in the previous decades.

Complicated study

The study is significant because the federal government had been unwilling, until just recently, to undertake the complicated task of cross-referencing Veterans Affairs, National Defence and Statistics Canada data to track suicide among ex-soldiers.

While the military has tracked suicides within the ranks for years, developing a snapshot of life and death after service has been hampered by the fact veterans fall under provincial health systems.

It is also important because it comes just weeks after the Liberal government released a joint suicide prevention strategy involving both the veterans and defence departments.

Data ends in 2012

"The Veteran Suicide Mortality Study is an important step in better understanding suicide within the veteran community," Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O'Regan said in a statement.

Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O'Regan says a new suicide mortality study involving ex-soldiers is a good first step to understanding the tragic issue. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

It complements the existing strategy, he said, and "gives us greater perspective as we continue to build better services and supports."

Aaron Bedard, a former combat engineer who served in Afghanistan, said the study is lacking because the data ends in 2012 just as the suicide crisis kicked off.

"This is just very vague and topical," Bedard told CBC News. "It is just generalizing it."

Those missing years in the study have been the worst in terms of former soldiers taking their own lives, he added.

What's needed, Bedard said, is more research between 2012 and 2017, and a commitment to deliver ongoing "real-time data" on future cases.

The joint suicide prevention strategy does contain a pledge to track suicides and to evaluate how well programs are working, but Bedard said he wants to see details. 

Cross-referencing cases

He also wants the veterans department to cross reference the most recent data with its client list in an effort to determine how effective its existing suicide prevention strategy has been.

That is something veterans officials have been reluctant to do, Bedard said.

"They have moved the yardstick about an inch" with this study, he added. "We're having to drag them into having some onus here."

As the suicide crisis unfolded in 2013, Bedard said the reflex of the defence and veterans departments, as well as the former Conservative government, was to downplay the issue, deny there was a problem and blame the media for reporting on it.

The new study "completely avoids" answering uncomfortable questions about that time and what is going on today, he added.

War veterans and people take part in Remembrance Day celebrations in Toronto on Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2014. A new study says Canadian veterans are 'significantly' more likely to die by suicide than the average population. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.